The Somalia Syndrome

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday that military intervention in Libya would be “controversial” across the Arab world and warned of the extraordinary complexity involved in setting up a no-fly zone over Libya. As Clinton put it, “There is a great deal of caution that is being exercised with respect to any actions that we might take other than in support of humanitarian missions.”

Defense Secretary Robert Gates agreed, and went after suggestions, like those from British Prime Minister David Cameron, that forces should impose a no-fly zone. Gates didn’t mince words: “There is a lot of, frankly, loose talk about some of these military options. Let's just call a spade a spade.” A no-fly zone, he said, isn’t a small undertaking. It “begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses.”

Despite the caution, the administration remains worried about what could happen in the North African country. “One of our biggest concerns is Libya descending into a chaos and becoming a giant Somalia,” Clinton said, which would pave the way for an al-Qaeda presence there.

Before Clinton’s testimony on the Hill, Senator John Kerry called for the United States to do more to help promote democracy in Arab countries. “We have to get this moment right,” Kerry said, describing plans to provide financial assistance to the countries in the region over the long term in the hopes of promoting more open systems there. It’s about aid, he said, not “troops and tanks.”

Gates and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano also spent time defending their budgets on the Hill yesterday.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon is in the United States today for talks with U.S. President Obama (his visit extends into tomorrow). Last week, Calderon had some strong criticisms for Washington, arguing that U.S. agencies are uncoordinated and the government isn’t doing enough to hedge drug and weapons flows to Mexico. He was angered by WikiLeaks cables in which U.S. officials said Mexico’s security agencies were corrupt. As White House press secretary Jay Carney described the visit, the president will be expressing his deep commitment “to the strong partnership that the United States has with Mexico.”